Throughout my boyhood a half-century ago, St. Patrick’s Day was eagerly anticipated by the adult men in my family. You might imagine this had to do with their wanting to honor Ireland’s patron saint, who had driven away the snakes and turned the shamrock into a symbol of trinitarian theology. I would have thought so myself if my dear mother hadn’t started to complain about this celebration weeks before the day. Nor was she alone. As a boy of just six or seven, I quickly discovered that almost all the adult women in County Donegal shared her anxiety about that day. The reason has to do with when St. Patrick’s Day occurs: right in the middle of Lent.
Why should that matter? Because at that time most adult Irish men liked to indulge in the bottle yet had given alcohol up for Lent. Then as now, everyone was expected to give something up. Children often gave up candy or other treats. Wives were expected to give up “nagging” (yes, it was a different time). Of course, all this was on top of the official Lenten observances, such as abstaining from meat on certain days. There was, however, one day of “dispensation”: on St. Patrick's Day you were allowed to enjoy whatever you had given up for Lent. For the adult men in my family, and for most of their friends and neighbors, this was a grand excuse to go on a complete bender. It seemed completely justified to them; after all, they had been on the wagon for a few weeks, and they still might have several weeks to go before Easter Sunday. Yet thanks to good St. Patrick, a little bit of Easter Sunday, or perhaps Mardi Gras, was allowed on March 17.
The entire situation was further complicated by the fact that, at least in my family, all the women and nearly all the men until their late teens or early twenties took and kept “the Pledge.” The Pledge was an oath that one would never take a drink; those who swore it, usually as children, became members of a Catholic organization called “the Pioneers.” Obviously, a child who makes such a pledge at the age of seven or eight has no idea that there might ever come a time when he or she is actually tempted to break it. And, indeed, by the time the boys were just a few years older, it was clear to most of them that this pledge was unlikely to last. By the time they were men—long after the pledge had been broken—some of them still grumbled about “how lucky the Orangemen are,” with no pledge, no nagging about having broken it, and no Lenten sacrifices. Perhaps they had worn their Pioneer pins with pride at school, but in later years keeping the pledge was regarded as a bit, well, unmanly (except for priests). And yet it was also looked upon with wonderment when a man did keep it, as one of my uncles did throughout his entire life. It should be noted here that keeping the pledge was a routine exercise for the women, to the wonderment of no one. My mother and every one of her sisters kept the pledge their entire lives. This tradition had largely died out by the time of my own generation, the children of the 1960s. Today it is, at most, a vague memory.
But let me return to Uncle Pat, who was viewed by all my relatives as a saintly soul, a true Knight of Columbus, and on this particular day as a kind of special delegate. He was treated like a clan representative standing at the gates of St Peter—one whose heroic virtue piled up a sufficient store of graces to allow others to stray on St. Patrick’s Day, as if he somehow redeemed their weakness by his seemingly supernatural power of renunciation. By his virtuous imitation of his namesake, our “saintly” Pat served as an “intercessor,” who made it possible for the other men in the extended family to drink until they fell off the pub stool.